HOW DO I GET MY KIDS TO DO WHAT I ASK - AND AVOID MELTDOWNS?!
Whether you need ideas to simply get your kids out the door peacefully, or help with a hitting or angry child, I’ve put together the definitive mindful parenting guide to managing meltdowns and getting kids to co-operate!
And as a special bonus, I've created a free downloadable Cheat Sheet listing the strategies you can use in those tricky situations!
How do I know this works? Because I’ve used these methods and they really changed my life!
When my daughter was a baby I hadn’t figured out these strategies yet. So when she became a stubborn toddler who wouldn’t get dressed/ change her nappy/ leave the house (you name it!), I got a rude awakening. My husband and I used to have to force her clothes on most days and nappy changes were a physical ordeal for us all.
Even though I was a mindfulness teacher and could stay calm, I hadn’t researched the mindful parenting techniques to get my daughter to co-operate and stay calm.
The low-point was one day when I was trying to get out the door to an important meeting, she refused to get dressed - so I tried to force her pyjamas off and her clothes on. She wouldn’t have that, and so she lashed out angrily and scratched my face leaving four trails of blood down my cheek! I was so furious I screamed at her and had to run into the bathroom to stop myself doing something I’d regret.
In the end I took her to daycare half dressed and crying, and I had to go to my meeting looking a fright! I knew something had to change.
From that day on I was determined to figure out what worked to get my daughter to co-operate and calm her big emotions.
After extensive research and much successful testing of the strategies on my daughter, I began teaching mindful parenting workshops to my mindfulness clients - and I can share these successful strategies with you now!
In this blog I’ll give you the step-by-step guide to transform your family life from chaos to calm and connected. But as a very handy gift to you, I’ve put together a Cheat Sheet summarising on-the-spot strategies to get co-operation and keep your kids calm. It’s got everything from what to do when kids refuse to eat, sleep, move or respond, right through to coping with tantrums!
CALM PARENTING STEP BY STEP
First I’m going to give you the step-by-step process to calm parenting, so that when you download the cheat sheet it will all make sense!
Step 1: Keeping Calm – When your child gets difficult, keep your voice and body language calm.
You may feel so frustrated you could burst, but if you lose your cool there’s very little chance that your child won’t lose it too! Showing your anger, whether by raising your voice, aggressive body language or even smacking, just provokes conflict and will inevitably lead to your child melting down and having a crying fit. Even if your child has already lost it (eg is hitting, shouting or crying), keep your voice and body language calm until his or her overwhelm has worn off. A technique you can use to keep calm when your anger and frustration rises is the STOP practice. Before you react to your anger:
Stop (don’t do anything else yet!)
Take a Deep Breath – deep breaths calm your nervous system by telling it you don’t need to react in a fight or flight way.
Open to What’s Happening in the Moment – notice the feeling in your body and the waves of emotion. If you can, label the emotion and what might be driving it, e.g. “Anger because I feel my son is disrespecting me.” Notice what’s around you, the sights and sounds – look around the room.
Proceed with Empathy – Turn from your inner emotions outwards to your child and try to empathise with what he or she is going through. Feel compassion for your child’s struggle with their big, scary emotions.
Step 2: If you get tantrums remind yourself it’s not because you are doing things wrong as a parent. It’s just your child learning to cope with big emotions.
Sure there are ways we can reduce meltdowns and increase co-operation, but no family life will ever be totally free of upsets! It’s part of children expressing and learning to cope with their emotions.
When in the midst of a meltdown, say to yourself“It’s not about me – it’s just my child learning to cope with his/her big emotions.” Focus on feeling empathy for their struggle rather than focusing on your own dislike of it all.
Our child’s difficult behaviour triggers strong reactions in our psychology – usually that we are failing as a parent and we’re not in control (and we really hate that!) or perhaps that we feel that our child does not respect us and that hurts deep down. On autopilot, we lash out and shout, we are aggressive or even smack our child. We need to shift our focus from our own emotions to feeling for our child’s struggle – after all, as adults we’ve had decades to work on self-awareness and self-control and we find it hard enough! How can we expect a 3, 4 or 5 year old to be in charge of their emotions?!
Step 3: Build your connection with your child
Even if you feel you cuddle your child a lot, connecting with them more at key times can really help increase co-operation. My daughter used to refuse to get dressed and get out the door in the morning so I increased my connection time with her before I started the going-out routine – and it worked like magic!
Choose other key times of the day when you know they could do with feeling more connected with you or when you’ve had difficulty in the past.
There are three types of connection that I recommend you use to improve your child’s co-operation:
i. Daily Connection – this is preemptive connection where you build your relationship with your child over time so they feel more secure. In addition to cuddling (which is fundamental), it also includes focused conversation, playing or doing an activity with them, and empathising with their struggles (all while not multitasking!) For multiple siblings, give each of them focused attention in defined bursts (eg “Special Time” at set times each day). This can really help children who are anxious, sensitive or a bit wild to feel calmer. If you notice your or your partner’s relationship with your child is not so great, it’s a sign that more daily connection is needed.
ii. Connection for Co-operation – also a preemptive strategy, this involves connecting with your child at times when you often get difficult behaviour as a way to minimise the conflict. This is usually needed at transition times of the day eg going out, leaving an activity, going to bed etc. Connecting with them through joking, chatting, laughing or physical play can help move them through the transition more happily.
iii. Empathy Connection – This is used in the moments when your child is getting upset or conflict occurs. If you empathise with them instead of heading into conflict you can often avoid the meltdown. More on this in Step 6 below.
Step 4 – Respond to your child’s deeper needs
Everyone wants to get their needs met. How can you help your child feel like they have got their needs met whilst doing what you need them to do? Mindful, connected parenting is all about tuning into the deeper need of your child and trying to meet that. That could be basic needs like sleep, food, drink or quiet time, or emotional needs like feeling secure, supported or connected to you.
When your child gets upset or difficult, consider what they are wanting deep down. For example, if my daughter refuses to go for her bath it’s often because she wants to keep playing, so I find a way to continue the play into the bathroom with water toys or a game.
Don’t just try to STOP the bad behavior. If a tap was dripping you wouldn’t try to plug up the tap – you’d work out how to fix the leak (with a new washer)! In the free Cheat Sheet I list the possible underlying needs and how you can meet them.
Step 5 – Set Clear Limits Without Punishment
The ‘old-style of parenting’ that our parents and grandparents handed down to us was based on a discipline style that punished bad behaviour as a way to stop it. The theory goes that if the parent creates bad consequences for a behaviour they don’t like, then the child learns to control themselves. There are lots of problems with this model!
It teaches children that aggression (eg shouting, hitting) or the removal of love and attention is the way to get other people to do what you want them to. Children may then use this to try to control other people as they grow up and when they are adults.
- It ignores the fact that toddlers and young children don’t have control over their emotions and reactions and don’t understand what’s going on during conflict.
- It teaches them that they are not loved or loveable whenever they do anything that displeases their parents. This is internalised by the child who grows up to believe deep down they are not loved unless they are succeeding or approved of by others.
- It tells them that they should have no power or control over their lives.
But the biggest error in using punishment is that:
- It teaches children that they should do what you ask because you have more power, rather than encouraging them to do what you ask because they love you and want to please you.
Mindful, connected parenting is all about the latter – building the trust and connection with your children so that they will want to please you out of love. This is their natural inclination anyway so it doesn’t take too much to foster it.
However it’s crucial to point out that we parents still need to set clear limits for our children. They are not in charge of the household- they are too young to know what’s best! We need to teach our kids boundaries, kindness and respect - and the best way is to explain it and to model it.
Step 6 – Handle Upsets, Meltdowns and Tantrums Using Empathy
It can often calm children down if they feel understood and listened to. It helps them cope with the scary emotions and gives you the chance to teach them emotional intelligence – learning that their emotions are okay and strategies to deal with them.
The way to use empathy during a meltdown is:
- Gently get down to their eye level,
- State what you see is happening (eg “You are upset because Timmy took your favourite toy to play with.”)
- Name & validate the emotions (eg “Do you feel sad because you really wanted that toy? It’s a fantastic green truck, I know.”)
- Then offer them an acceptable alternative that gives them some sense of redress or control (eg Why don’t we ask Timmy if he can give you the truck when he’s finished playing with it?).
Anger (or crying) is usually the way that kids express their strong emotions but underneath anger lies hurt or fear. So it’s more useful to talk about that rather than the anger covering it up.
It’s important to say that we cannot always head off a meltdown - where the child is so overwhelmed with emotions that they lose any ability to control themselves. The only possible route is to let the tantrum run its course – as difficult as that can be – and be there for our child (don’t leave them alone).
Step 7: Create the conditions for calm in your home life
The vast majority of meltdowns and conflict are caused by environmental influences such as whether your child is over-tired, hungry, too hot/cold or over-stimulated. How many times have you been at the supermarket around dinnertime and seen a small child having a meltdown? It seems so obvious that these kids just need an early dinner and bed and can’t cope with being out at that hour! But we all misjudge our child’s ability to cope now and then. To avoid this happening:
Work out a daily routine for your child – especially for mealtimes and sleep times –and do the same things every day at the same time. Kids thrive on routine because they feel secure knowing what to expect and you don’t have to convince them to do things when they are just a matter of course!
Ensure your child gets regular healthy snacks and meals and enough water. Avoid giving them sweet drinks or food with added sugar.
When you’re together, keep your schedule simple to avoid over-stimulation*.
Minimise or avoid screen time for kids under 10*.
*I’ve written a blog about simplifying your child’s schedule, and also one about reducing digital overload and having a calmer home. These approaches could really help your child be calmer and less tired, especially if you have a sensitive child like mine!
If you’d like a summary of the techniques you can use to get your children to co-operate and to avoid meltdowns, DOWNLOAD THE CHEAT SHEET HERE!